Dear Sir Keir,
Labour is riding high in the polls. But whether you canter to a healthy majority at the next general election or scrape through, your tenure could be short-lived. To protect Labour from early defeat and a swift Conservative return, you must adopt Proportional Representation (PR). PR is not just about fairness but about Labour’s very survival in office.
Many economies are still recovering from the pandemic. But, as PM, you will inherit a bumper pack of extra difficulties peculiar to the UK. When Blair won in 1997, we enjoyed a relatively healthy economy, boosted by many consecutive quarters of growth. As Neal Lawson, 2020, notes:
“… it was easy [then] to do mild social democracy”.
By contrast, you will adopt a nation broken by 13 years of Conservative austerity, a self-inflicted wound inflamed by their failed escape to the promised fantasyland of Brexit. According to the economist, Adam Tooze (2023), the UK is now experiencing a protracted period marked by low productivity, stagnation and underperformance. Avoiding a technical recession doesn’t mean we’ve escaped managed decline. Despite Hunt’s boosterist “budget for growth” the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) predicts a cumulative fall of 5.7% in living standards over the next two years, one which, according to the Institute for Government, won’t return to its pre-pandemic level until at least 2028.
The OBR also calculates that positive effects of the budget will be modest and that improvements in the short term will be at the expense of weaker growth in future years. Some argue that Conservative policy places the UK on a downward trajectory whose ‘juggernaut’ momentum could take twenty years to correct. Nor is your timid ‘re-set’ likely to change our course since you have claimed the narrative of ‘“Making Brexit work”, a backward, inward-looking vision that tells against a robust recovery.
It’s also difficult to see a clean ending to the Ukraine war soon because we can’t envision a total victory on either side. But a protracted war means the cost of goods may stay inflated. Andrew Marr’s suggestion that the war could depress global abundance and open economies in the longish term also casts another shadow over Labour’s hopes for a quick economic recovery to secure its longevity.
With or without a protracted war, the need for more state funding will put further pressure on your Achilles Heel – Labour’s reputational difficulties as a party to be trusted with the public purse. You will find yourself on a tightrope, balancing the needs of a chronically underfunded state sector against the need to persuade sceptics that Labour is cured of its big spending instincts. How will you square this circle?
These economic factors raise an eyebrow over your claim that you should ultimately be judged on whether people “feel better off”. This seems a shaky basis for securing further terms in office. We can dispute precisely how broken the UK will be, but aren’t you indulging in ‘magic thinking’ here?
The end of our tethers
‘I’m being unfairly negative about your economic prowess’ you might claim. Other powerful obstacles are in your way though.
First, improving well-being sufficiently to placate voters themselves may need a masterstroke. They are worn down by austerity, now seriously impatient for solutions and live in a short-sighted culture of ‘the quick fix’. So, any Labour failures to fix matters super-fast won’t be easily tolerated. Moreover, that fervent, but unfulfilled, desire for change unleashed by Brexit will have nowhere to go except straight into fierce expectations of your government.
Second, the Conservatives deployed their right-wing media to intensify suspicion of Labour. The assault went deep and the ‘Corbyn Peril’ still lingers, now transferred, irrationally, to the party as a whole. This successful volte-face on truth is illustrated by the interviewee who said she’ll vote Tory because, unlike Labour, “at least they tell the truth”. (Brief pause to bang head repeatedly on wall.)
Third, Labour has been ‘othered’ by our long-standing Conservative-dominated political culture and this gives you an equivalent of the misogyny problem. Appalling Conservative behaviour has reinforced public scepticism about politics as a whole, Guardian, 2021. But years of Conservative domination and throaty support from their right-wing media have also created a system of double standards in which Labour invariably must do better (on everything) just to reach the same point of acceptance.
The extraordinary litany of Conservative corruption, deception and mismanagement we’ve witnessed would simply never be tolerated from you. Labour sits in a right-wing political culture where it will continue to be perceived as the exception and be judged against different, higher, and often completely unreasonable, standards.
The right will use your struggle to turn the juggernaut around, and your failures along the way, in every tiny detail, to proclaim that voters made the wrong choice. Your first term could be a Conservative ‘moment in the wings’, to use, like the Terminator cyborg, merely for re-assembly. You are aware of the fragility of your situation. Whilst unveiling your ‘five missions’, you stressed that ‘long term’ solutions will take more than five years. But there’s much to suggest you’ll struggle to get further.
Winning alone doesn’t entail surviving alone. To secure Labour’s tenure in the long term, the most important change you could make is to adopt PR.
Installing PR would cushion Labour by removing the First Past the Post (FPTP) system which repeatedly puts the Conservatives into power on a minority of the vote. In this regard, PR would protect you against early rejection by the impatient, suspicious, contemptuous minority just described, and instead activate the progressive majority vote which exists but, under FPTP, is voiceless.
PR would also introduce a multi-party coalition style of government in which Labour’s own efforts to improve the economy are supported and guided by other aligned progressive parties. Cross-party alliances would provide a buffer against hostile take-overs and those inevitable phases of public disillusionment the right-wing media will amplify along the way.
Cross-party alliances would also enable Labour to execute policies using long-term planning. Welsh Labour’s Co-operation Agreement with Plaid Cymru provided the security of guaranteed support, enabling Drakeford to introduce radical initiatives ranging from universal free school meals to ending homelessness. Plaid’s role in shaping the programme hasn’t undermined Labour’s hegemony. Instead, “delivery and implementation “mostly remain in Labour hands”. The deal has strengthened Welsh Labour, a party now enjoying its highest ever polling.
The current First Past the Post (FPTP) system is a coercive, ticking clock that drives politicians to court extreme, populist narratives in the deadly game of ‘winner takes all’. PR, by contrast, will lend you time, freedom and support to see through meaningful long-term projects – fair taxation in a stagnant economy, saving the NHS, generating confidence in UK business and science investment, tackling the crises of inequality, climate change and other massive social welfare issues.
Beyond authoritarian styles
The Westminster Tory-dominated FPTP duopoly is a self-perpetuating system of top-down, hierarchical elitism, classism and misogyny. Regarding gender, only 31% of House of Commons members and 28% of House of Lords peers are women. FPTP perpetuates the continuation of the male, authoritarian style, one that, as Braverman demonstrates, women can also adopt.
Introducing PR halts this pernicious cycle and is simultaneously a step towards gender equality and better democracy. The data shows clearly that PR produces more women in power and hence enables women to represent the female 50.7% of the population more effectively, for example, by reducing the ‘blocking off’ of safe seats for old men.
Female politicians also perform less well in the authoritarian, top-down structure of FPTP. Women tend to work collaboratively, within and across parties. As a non-adversarial, dialogue-based system, PR is more conducive to female styles of political interaction and so will encourage more women into politics. Labour’s own staying power during the challenging times ahead will require constructive, non-adversarial dialogue and co-operation, both internally and with other parties. By using a system that attracts politicians who (as per Finland) are practiced in, and comfortable with, this approach, Labour would fortify its own position hugely.
Proper gender (plus racial and social) representation will strengthen your hand by deepening the wall around progressive politics. Closer equality safeguards better democracy.
Labour needs PR to protect itself not just from without but from within. You are reputedly afraid of PR because it threatens to split Labour into separate parties and extinguish it as a unitary force. But your unitary vision is at odds with UK society.
Without PR, Labour can’t embrace the increasingly pluralistic, complex nature of our society, or respond flexibly to its changing demands. Greater devolution without PR simply won’t be enough. This combination actually links to poor performance on economic equality, poverty, and workers’ rights. For votes to be meaningful they must also represent the specificity and diversity of people’s values. FPTP can’t contain this variety and so dissatisfaction from within the progressive community will keep growing.
To respond effectively and protect your long-term future, Labour must become part of a multi-party system that represents a multiplicity of viewpoints, in particular, that capture the attention of young people. Your unitary vision is no longer fit for purpose and will buckle under the strain of a new younger demographic agitating for more inclusive and diverse political representation. I don’t know anyone under 25 who thinks Labour ‘gets’ them. As Neal Lawson wrote:
“The idea that one small faction of one party can rule the chaotic waves of the 21st century is a non-starter.”
If Labour doesn’t survive beyond its first term, the progressive voice will dissipate into a backwater of despairing non-voters and small parties which, under FPTP, will have zero political efficacy.
You have a perilous journey ahead and to avoid being pushed off the political cliff edge, you need the courage to adopt a new way of doing politics. PR would place Labour within a broader cross-party community that underpins sustained economic progress, retains voter goodwill, and realises the fairer, more compassionate social agendas we urgently need.
The will to adopt PR is already here – in the other progressive parties, increasingly, amongst the UK electorate and, overwhelmingly, in Labour’s own community.
You have consistently ignored the powerful moral argument for PR as ‘more democratic’. But, from sheer self-interest, consider Labour’s own survival. Please listen to, and act on the growing call for PR because your options now are basically, adapt or fall.